You’re waiting to die under a broken sky and the summer breeze is thick with the essence of cut grass and charred flesh. The line of those chosen by the Lottery stretches out far behind you, but ahead it is far too short. Nobody talks.
The omnipresent face of the Prophet smiles down from a poster over the entrance to the Faith Detector, a flashing intensity in his eyes that makes the smile seem almost sinister. Almost-
No. That is heretical thinking.
You are thinking the thoughts of a heretic and there are only five people in front of you. One of them is being strapped in now, the leads and wires attached to her head and hands. A middle-aged woman with a chubby face and just a bit too much makeup. She looks utterly at peace, smiling the beatific smile of the faithful.
You want to strangle her, for her calm, for her smug certainty. You want to give her a taste of the fear screaming in your heart. The Detector hums to life, and you want so badly to-
Her eyes flutter open. Her skin begins to bubble. She opens her mouth to scream, but all that emerges is a coil of white smoke. It is only a matter of seconds before her skin is black and her eyeballs have boiled and burst, releasing the fluid inside to run down her charred cheeks in a mockery of tears.
Your rage turns to bitterness and self-loathing. And still the fear towers over it all. If she did not pass the test of her faith how can you hope to survive?
Once upon a time faith was uncertain, immeasurable. Only god could see the things of the heart.
Then came the Prophet.
You can’t remember the first time you saw that face, that smiling face with the fierce eyes. Was it in a news report about a new cult that had cropped up in the wastelands of Montana? Had one of your internet friends posted a picture of him?
Certainly by the time the smiling young woman had knocked on your door and handed you a pamphlet with that face smiling out at you, and the words, “Will You be Ready?” printed underneath, certainly by then you knew all too well about the Church of the Broken Sky.
Up ahead the woman’s blackened bones have been cleared away, and a nervous young man is climbing into her place. He’s trying to look brave, but even from here you can see he’s shaking in the heat of an August afternoon. As they tape the leads to his skin, you wonder what he believed Before.
There was time when people were free to think what they pleased about god. You could believe in Mohammed or Jesus or Krishna. You could believe everything or nothing at all.
The machine hums to life. You’ve never seen this boy before, but there’s something about the shape of his eyes that reminds you of-
You can’t look. You stare at your trembling hands, and wait for the sound of crackling flesh, your heart hammering in your chest.
But the moment passes and then another. Nothing. You look up and see the boy being unhooked from the machine, shaking now harder than ever, barely able to stand once he’s out of the chair, and you want to cheer.
You don’t want to die. You would do anything to not die.
“It is not enough to do the things you should,” the Prophet’s voice would thunder during his daily broadcasts. “The God beyond the sky is not pleased by deeds, for men may do the work of truth out of a false heart. Even belief is not enough. Belief is common. Belief is plain. You believe in the things that you can see, tables and chairs and life and death and earth and sea. The God beyond the sky requires something more. She requires faith.”
You have to have faith. There are three people left in front of you now. Three souls to be weighed in the balance. If they have faith they will be spared. If they do not, they will die. You will die.
You don’t want to die. It’s a simple enough thing, and yet it fills the whole of your mind. You. Do not. Want. To die.
If you can get through this, you can go home. And Gracey will come running, and wrap her arms around your knees, and you will be safe. The Lottery never calls the same person twice.
Whatever it takes to get through this. Whatever it takes to go on living. You will say anything. Do anything. Be anything.
Before the Church of the Broken Sky defeated the heretics of the world and the Prophet reigned supreme there was a saying: “Live free or die.” Which state was that the motto of? You can’t remember. Such a small question on this August afternoon, waiting in line for the faith detector, but it bothers you that you can’t remember.
Live free or die. It’s almost funny. You might even laugh if you weren’t trying so hard not to cry.
The next man is a burly type with a scowl on his face and tatoos all over his arms, probably rides a motorcycle, you think. Old-school rebel biker type. No way this guy passes.
Two to go.
You pray to the god from beyond the skies to give you even the smallest amount of faith. Surely this proves something. Surely the prayer itself is evidence of something. Surely…
How can the machine know when you you yourself can’t be sure?
Two more to go. An elderly woman, frail, skin as thin as paper settles back into the chair. She’s on the edge of death anyway, you think, what would it matter if you took her? But the machine passes her too. She is the least frightened of all of them. She steps down from the chair and hobbles onward as if nothing happened.
The girl in front of you slumps back into the Faith Detector’s embrace. She’s young, fifteen or sixteen, blandly pretty, fingernails painted a garish shade of green.
It wasn’t so long since you were fifteen. Only a few short years. Only half a lifetime ago. A time before the Prophet. A time before the Faith Detector. A time before the broken sky. But this girl has grown up with these things. She has studied her catechisms every Friday at the temple without fail.
She looks almost bored as she is strapped in. Please, you pray, Surely you will spare this one too. And you’re not really praying for her.
The god from beyond the sky can hear your prayer. You know this.
She hears. But She does not answer.
When it is over they take the blackened bones away, and a bit of green fingernail somehow spared from the soot of the burning falls unnoticed to the ground.
Tears run down your face. You lift your eyes to the riven sky, and force yourself to look upon the impossible thing that hangs there like a cancer among the clouds, it’s thousand limbs and million eyes stretched out to the corners of the earth.
Then you glance back at the line of people that stretches out behind you across the parking lot. The next person in line, a kid with thick rimmed glasses and a smattering of leftover acne gives you a nervous smile and a thumbs up.
They lead you up to the Faith Detector and strap you in.
You try to pray, but it isn’t a prayer.
The words are hollow.
Your heart is dry.
Albert Berg was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. It is said that he hypnotized five gators in a row by the age of nine with his melodic prose and infinite imagination. Albert is a true menace in the arena because of a steadfast ability to remain true to his roots of thoughtful contemplation despite the hurricanes that pass all through his state. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life. Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.